Litfest Syndrome

Come, winter, come! and with thee bring – thy season of literature festivals. And with them what I call the season of Litfest syndrome. A trend that started with Jaipur Literature Festival in 2006; JLF has become a Mecca for authors, publishers and book lovers who throng the small town at the peak of sometimes dreary foggy and rainy winter week of January.

It was a place for readers to meet their favourite authors, listen to their views – it was the time before social media storm, before the age of Instagram and live videos and tweets. And the success of JLF created a race for even more litfests across the country and even abroad.

The small intimate settings soon turned into ocean – it turned into a fashion statement with oft heard remark in the drawing rooms and social gathering – “I am/was in Jaipur for JLF”. Authors became celebrities and so did the readers in their company (mea culpa).

Everyone who had a story to tell started writing a book. In a country where cricket, Bollywood and politics rules; cricketers, actors and politicians also joined this band wagon. A second chance of being in news, extending their celebrity status, creating another means of earning all motivated this trend. A chance to know the inside story of their favourite celebrity or an exposé into a scandal ensures the success of the book and the author.

This movement has been a boon for publishing industry – with bestseller authors like Amish Tripathi and Chetan Bhagat, serious writers who manage both their professional and writing careers like Devdutt Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, historians like William Dalrymple and Romila Thapar, with casual and sometimes one-book authors who sell because of their celebrity status, and first time authors who become a success story.

One meets a cross section of people at these litfests – casual readers, fashionable readers, serious readers, intellectuals and critics and some middle pathers like me who meander between bestsellers and areas of interest – we do not profess to have read everything under the sky even if we would like to.

The proliferation of writers ensure no dearth of speakers at these litfests and some of these sessions turn into a television studio debate with politics and religion taking centerstage to the literary conversations. The art of writing has become synonymous to the experience of personal Me without the larger canvas of experience and stimulus and this gets reflected in the conversations.

The ever-present social media and 24-hour news channels, the relentless readers, the controversies, the celebrities are all contributing to the continued success of multitude of litfests. But the way only few books and authors make the cut to become classic, will the same happen with the litfests? How long will this model sustain itself? Is it time for the debate on how to reset the button on the current litfest syndrome and make them more meaningful?

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